Advertising and marketing content is now presented – in increasingly subtle and targeted ways – wherever children spend time on screens, from internet entertainment and video games to educational apps used at school. Teenagers on average are seeing one ad every ten seconds while scrolling through their feeds, equivalent to 420 advertisements per hour1, and researchers are finding that 95% of apps designed for preschoolers contained at least one kind of advertising2.
Children are uniquely vulnerable to advertising’s influence3 – the frontal cortex, where judgment sits in the brain, doesn’t fully develop until youth reach their twenties. Marketers are using ever more complex and sophisticated means to exploit this vulnerability to influence children’s desires, behaviors and even values. Children and Screens invited leading experts and researchers on internet marketing and advertising to weigh in on tips for parents to help families understand the scope and impacts of the new world of online marketing to kids – and provide advice for how to help their families navigate the new reality.
Manipulative Design and Stealth Advertising
Increasingly sophisticated digital platforms have found a multitude of ways to deceptively display advertising content to youth. . Bonnie Patten, Executive Director and co-Founder of truthinadvertising.org (TINA.org) explains that some digital platforms and games include “advergames” which are “immersive virtual advertisements that are disguised as games…without informing kids that the games are really just giant ads.” Companies also place “undisclosed sponsored content within organic worlds” and in some cases use avatars that look like humans or celebrities to promote their products or brand. For example, an undisclosed bot that looks like a celebrity or another avatar could lure youth into “opening advertisements” that contain prizes and treasures. Patten highlights that “In all of these formats, the distinction between what is marketing and what is organic content is always missing.”
“Dark patterns” is a broad term often used to describe manipulative design practices. Michelle Rosenthal, JD, Senior Staff Attorney at the Division of Advertising Practices at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), notes that “sometimes a dark pattern may have privacy harm, sometimes it may have financial harm. A ‘dark pattern’ is when a company uses a manipulative design practice that is unclear to the user and as a result, [the user] is either paying for something or they’re giving up information.”
Influencers and Apps
Platforms Driven by AI-Enhanced Data Collection and Delivery
The data processing power of artificial intelligence (AI) is growing at an exponential rate and this radically increased capability allows devices (and advertisers) to continuously collect a large amount of data from children and adults. Omni Cassidy, PhD, Assistant Professor of Population Health at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, notes this increased capability for data storage and learning is enabling “an enormous amount of synchronization, not just between devices but platforms, websites, and online searches. Even the online behaviors of a child can then be used to impact or to push certain things to the parents devices.”
The increased AI learning capabilities of ad delivery systems also mean continuously fine-tuned ads being tailored and delivered to individual preferences. “In one household with four different devices, four people could see four different ads because of the way that the algorithms have now tracked their specific online behaviors. And so there’s a unique, individualized, personalized targeting that happens now with the new capabilities that it is becoming more and more challenging to capture truly how much kids are, and teens are exposed,” says Cassidy.
The False Promise of Disclosure
Though some advertisers may point to written disclaimers on media content as a measure of protection for children, “lots of kids online can’t even read. And even pre-teens and teens can be so engrossed and distracted by what’s happening online that they don’t even see the disclaimers” says Susan Linn, EdD, Lecturer in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Research Associate at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Impact to Kids From Marketing and Advertising
Research suggests that ads embedded in so-called educational apps can actually disrupt learning, says Linn.
Ads utilizing advanced digital technologies “are designed to bypass conscious awareness and exploit the subconscious motivations. And this potentially can worsen the effects that we already see in terms of the effect of ads,” says Cassidy.
Disproportionate Harms to Children From Communities of Color
Exposure to food and beverage ads, for example, not only influences child behavior in the form of food preferences and nagging to parents, but influences the consumption of foods in general beyond those shown in ads. “All of this contributes to an overall poor diet, to excess weight, and also health disparities, particularly in communities of color,” says Cassidy, who notes that Black youth are up to two times more likely to see food and beverage ads, and “the ads the Black youth see tend to also be less healthy compared to other groups like their white counterparts.”
Beyond behavioral impacts, ads may be communicating a value system to children that shape life choices and that may contradict your family’s values. “The primary value promoted by a commercialized culture is modern day materialism, the false notion that the things we buy will make us happy,” says Linn. “In fact, research tells us that the things we buy don’t make us happy, at least not in any kind of sustained way. Materialistic values in kids are linked to depression, anxiety, lower self-esteem, psychosomatic illnesses, underachievement in school, irresponsible spending and conflictual relationships with their parents.”
Few Current Guardrails and Protections
At times it can feel that parents are alone in trying to protect children from commercial culture online. “The barrage of advertising targeting children is a public health problem, and it’s a societal problem, and for the well-being of children and the world at large, society needs to fix it” says Linn.
In response to a question about whether any laws ban advertising to kids, Rosenthal notes that “there’;s not a specific law that prohibits advertising generally to minors. In fact, the First Amendment protects the ability of marketers to advertise. But there is the FTC Act. There are also other limitations on advertising. So, for example, the Children Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) rule prohibits the collection of certain personal information” without providing notice to,and getting verifiable consent from, parents. Rosenthal said this same information “often is used by advertisers to engage in targeted advertising. And so for kids, when a company knows that they’re dealing with kids under [age] 13, there are going to be limitations there with respect to COPPA. But there’s no law that prohibits advertising to kids outright.”
The FTC does provide an endorsement guide to “offer guidance to businesses, content creators, advertisers and others on how to identify endorsements so that it’s clear that somebody is endorsing a product and being paid or for that endorsement or getting that product for free,” says Rosenthal.
What Can Parents and Caregivers Do?
Try to locate where data is being collected and increase control over data flow
Rosenthal said there are “a ton of things that people can do online to try to figure out what information is being collected,” llike looking at device operating systems or app stores to see what information apps are collecting. But she notes that these sources can be challenging to navigate and may not always have accurate or detailed information.
Cassidy notes that “right now, the best tool and the only tool that we have are privacy preferences. People have probably seen the cookie settings notifications that come up. And it could just be easy to just “accept all” and keep going and not pay that much attention to them. Stop for a moment and actually look and see what type of data is being collected and then decline. There’s usually a button where you can decline marketing-related cookies. Usually you cannot decline the necessary data that’s collected for those particular websites or for the functioning of the website. But there are other types of marketing related data that you can decline in many cases.”
Cassidy provides a few additional suggestions to protect families from data collection and synchronization:
- Decline connecting devices to each other. For example, a lot of Apple devices are connected using an Apple ID. Consider declining that connection so that you sever that connection.
- Periodically delete unused apps to limit access to your personal data. Be strategic about the apps used on your phones and delete unused apps, or only download apps when they are needed and then delete them right after. It limits the amount of access that any apps can have to your data which can go a long way in preventing that information being shared with third parties.
While much of our online behavior is tracked in granular detail, there are steps you can take to minimize the sharing of personal data, which can help limit your family’s exposure to targeted advertising. “When using the web, make sure your default setting is ‘private browsing,’ says University of Arizona Associate Professor Matthew Lapierre. “Use web browsers that allow for the installations of add-ons (Mozilla Firefox preferably) and then install and use an advertising blocker (e.g., AdBlocker Ultimate, Adblock Plus) and privacy enhancer (e.g., Ghostery).”
Help children learn to recognize ads and understand the system creating them
- Co-view and discuss content
Co-viewing with children, especially younger children, as they experience online content provides opportunities for instruction. “Sometimes with my kids I will ask ‘Why do you think we got that ad? What do they know about us?’ I think that it’s really important to help kids understand what platforms know about them, because they may not realize their behavior is being tracked in ways that they are then going to be fed something next that is very similar,” says Radesky.
- Investigate the origin of desire/want
Curious conversation can help a parent guide a child to understand that advertising may be influencing their momentary wants and desires, says Cassidy. “When a parent sees the child watching something and you see a reaction that a kid may have like “I want that, I want to buy that” you can begin to be curious and ask “Why? Why do you want to eat that? What about that?” These conversations may not immediately change anything, notes Cassidy, but notes “it certainly opens up an opportunity to be more intentional about the desires that we have and opens up an opportunity to recognize that sometimes desires are influenced from external means.” Regularly having low-judgment conversations that investigate motivations can “go a long way in shifting the needle in this area within your own family.”
- Identify the system creating the ads
For older children, Josh Golin, Executive Director of Fairplay says “it is really important to teach kids about the bigger system as well.” Golin suggests using Google Search as a key demonstration. “We don’t teach kids that actually when you’re doing those searches, Google is collectiWng all sorts of information and the order of the ranking has to do with a whole bunch of things both about you and what’s valuable to Google’s advertisers… It’s not just how an individual ad works, but also how the whole system works,” says Golin.
Be intentional about establishing and communicating your own family’s values
Cassidy finds it important to “practice reclaiming our attention and reclaiming our values for ourselves and our families.” The nature of advertising “hijacks our ability to make behaviors in alignment with our own values. But if we can begin to be curious about that, what that means and what that looks like, we can kind of take back some of our power away from advertisers and put it back into our own hands,” says Cassidy.
Curate your child’s influences
Curating the content your child encounters can also be a helpful strategy, says Radesky, who suggests not letting an algorithmic feed determine what children see and for parents to “find positive channels who have diverse characters, who have really positive messages, and then encourage your kids to subscribe and watch those channels, so you at least know that they are not being fed something you are unsure about.”
Get involved with increasing protections for kids
“Share your concerns and raise your voice with local, state or federal representatives” to increase data and privacy protections for kids, says Cassidy.
The FTC has a website where individuals can file reports about any individual company practice that appears to violate federal regulations. “We want to hear from people. There are a lot of ways that we decide whether to investigate a company and whether to bring a case. But consumer complaints are a big part of that and we highly recommend filing a report at https://reportfraud.ftc.gov when you see something that you think is deceptive or unfair,” says Rosenthal.
Resources/organizations for advocacy for policy change
Fairplay/Screen Time Action Network: https://fairplayforkids.org/
To learn more, view the entire webinar, “Captive Market: Protecting Children in the New World of Online Advertising”, on the Children and Screens YouTube channel